Employers should be able to set dress codes for their workplace, but in the case of the proposed Charter of Values, the Parti Quebecois government is going too far.
One of the Charter’s proposals includes a highly controversial ban on the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols - kippas, turbans, hijabs, burkas and large crosses – in the public sector workplace. The ban would affect all public sector employees including daycare staff, school and hospital employees, police, judges and civil servants.
|Quebec's Charter of Values poster - unacceptable religious symbols|
It calls into questions the religious neutrality of the state
According to the Quebec government, banning religious symbols from the workplace would ensure the religious neutrality of the state. If the Charter becomes law, compliance with the ban will likely be more burdensome for non-Christians than Christians, and, in my opinion, this calls into question the very religious neutrality of the state.
It is necessary and reasonable for a secular state to require its employees to exercise their duties in the spirit of religious neutrality. This applies to both the religious and the non-religious. In the absence of evidence that Quebec has a substantial problem with its public sector employees who wear religious symbols, the Charter of Values seems unnecessary and repressive.
Human resource policies for troublesome employees should be enough
It is also insulting. It paints all religious people with the same brush, suggesting that those who wear religious symbols to work are incapable of doing their jobs competently and without prejudice because of their desire to express their beliefs. While there are fanatics in every religion who may cause problems, a legislated charter of values to deal with them is excessive. Human resource policies that are well developed and properly administered should be sufficient to deal with individual employees who do not act in a professional manner because of their religious beliefs.
It distorts the concept of the separation of church and state
Some argue that the ban on wearing religious symbols in the public sector workplace is a natural extension of the separation of church and state. I disagree. The imposition of a charter of values that discriminates against some because they wear religious symbols (and let’s be honest, non-Christians will be most affected) distorts the concept of separation between church and state.
The separation of church and state protects the freedom of religion and its expression; it does not try to limit them by policing clothing. Neither favoring nor discriminating against any religion, the state maintains its neutrality. Public policies on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, which most religions oppose, effectively illustrate the success of the separation between church and state.
Over time, the Charter of Values could have the unintended consequence of pushing religious groups to the fringes of society under the guise of preserving the separation of church and state. Eventually, similar pressures may begin to play out in the private sector.
Requiring people to remove the symbols of their religion as a condition of public sector employment has the effect of removing their community of faith from the public eye, and making it invisible. A ban on religious symbols denies the individual and their community their identity and existence. This has never been the intention of the separation of church and state.
Public sector employees do not need to hide their religion in order to preserve the religious neutrality of the state. A Charter of Values that forbids employees from displaying religious symbols on their person in the public sector workplace unwittingly promotes a vision of society without religion. It suggests that religion should be unseen, and while some would agree, this is untenable in a society that constitutionally guarantees freedom of religion and expression.
The Charter of Values seeks to regulate the expression of religion in the public sector. In doing so, and to the detriment of individuals’ beliefs, the Charter approaches a repudiation of the very religious neutrality that the Quebec government seeks to enshrine as a core value.